Since 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees had been waiting to return to the homes they had been forced to leave when Israel was founded. By the 1960s a new generation was growing up, one which had known nothing but squalid refugee camps.
In the late 1950s Palestinian activists formed the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, better known as Fatah. They were determined to launch military action against Israel.
Fatah launched their first raid in December 1964. Although the impact was minimal – many of the guerrillas were arrested by Egyptian police – other operations followed.
While Egypt’s popular leader Gamal Abdul Nasser argued for caution, the Palestinians found a more sympathetic audience in Syria. In February 1966 a coup brought the Baathists to power. Soon the government was calling for a “popular liberation war”.
The new regime strengthened Syria’s links to the Soviet Union, prompting King Hussein of Jordan to raise the spectre of a Soviet-Syrian-Egyptian axis threatening Western interests in the Middle East.
A war of words developed between Israel and Syria. The Israelis accused Syria of threatening their water supplies and of sponsoring Palestinian raids into Israel from the Golan Heights.
By early 1967 the tension seemed to have eased and guerrilla raids began to tail off. In April, Israel announced a plan to bring the whole of the demilitarised zone between the Syrian and Israeli front lines into cultivation. For the Syrians, this was a deliberate provocation.
After an Israeli tractor appeared on the disputed land on 7 April, the Syrians launched a mortar attack. The Israelis hit back with tanks and artillery while their fighter jets pounded Syrian positions.
It was in this charged atmosphere that reports reached Cairo of Israeli troop movements near the Syrian border. It appeared that the pieces of an Israeli plan to overthrow the Syrian regime were falling into place.
On 11 May general Yitzhak Rabin declared, “The moment is coming when we will march on Damascus to overthrow the Syrian government.”
Nasser sent two battalions to the Sinai the following day. On 23 May he ordered the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping.
At 8.30am on 5 June Egyptian field marshal Abd-al-Hakim Amer’s plane took off for a tour of inspection of Egyptian positions in Sinai.
Egyptian gunners were given instructions not to open fire while the commander was airborne. Minutes later, the first wave of Israeli attacks began.
While Amer was marooned in the air, Israeli commanders obliterated the Egyptian air force, and removed whatever military threat Egypt might have posed to Israel in the first hour of the war.
They kept silent about the scale of their victory. The following day, the Gaza Strip, home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, fell to Israeli troops.
The Israelis took Bethlehem and Hebron in the West Bank from the Jordanian army, while Israeli paratroopers seized East Jerusalem, capturing the Old City including the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Wailing Wall on 7 June.
The Israelis also launched their forces into Sinai. They quickly pushed back Egyptian troops towards the Suez Canal. For the Palestinians of the West Bank, 1967 was a repeat of the catastrophe of 1948. Thousands fled to Jordan to swell the miserable refugee camps.
The crisis brought a sudden revival of Arab unity as Nasser accused the US and Britain of sending fighter planes to join the Israeli assault.
Now, as he saw Israeli warplanes flying unchallenged over Cairo, Nasser knew that in reality, a defeat for Egypt was a defeat for all the Arabs. He cabled Syrian commanders urging them to save their forces from defeat and accept the United Nations-sponsored ceasefire.
An Egyptian counter-attack failed, the army was in chaos and the retreat became a rout. Thousands of Egyptian troops were trapped in Sinai behind enemy lines. Nasser’s warning to the Syrians came too late.
Although the Syrian government asked for a ceasefire at 3.20am on the morning of 9 June, Israeli forces advanced towards Damascus, taking the Golan Heights. The Israeli army halted at the town of Qunaitra and accepted the ceasefire, which went into effect the following day.
The cruellest blow of the war was its exposure of the hollowness of the Nasser’s regime. Nasser’s success in playing Great Power politics had brought Egypt the latest Soviet equipment, but the men in command failed the test of war. On the evening of 9 June, he took full responsibility for the defeat and resigned.
Within hours thousands of people were taking to the streets across Egypt to demand that Nasser stay. One writer described the scene, “The streets of Cairo were flooded with more than two and half million… And its slogans could not be misunderstood: ‘No imperialism, no dollar!’ and ‘No leader but Gamal’.”
The following day, Nasser withdrew his resignation. Nasser had been confirmed in power by a spontaneous popular upsurge of support, but the gap between reality and bombast was painfully large.
In February 1968 the working class district of Helwan on the outskirts of Cairo was convulsed by massive demonstrations, which quickly spread to university campuses in Cairo and Alexandria.
Protestors besieged the National Assembly chanting, “No leniency for the [army] traitors” and “No socialism without freedom”.
In March of that year Palestinian guerrillas faced down an Israeli assault on the Karameh refugee camp in Jordan. The battle of Karameh sparked radicalisation across the Arab world.
For millions of Arabs the guerrillas had proved capable of doing what the Arab armies had failed to achieve in 1967. This movement would launch the Arab world into a new round of struggle, one that threatened to topple the regimes.
By 1982 the guerrilla struggle was defeated by a combination of Arab repression and Israeli raids. In 1986 the centre of resistance would shift to the territories captured by the Israelis in 1967 with a popular uprising known as the Intifada.
Anne Alexander is the author of Nasser, His Life and Times, available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com. Anne will be speaking at Marxism 2007, a festival of resistance, on Class and Sect in the Middle East. For more details go to » www.marxismfestival.org.uk
Protest at Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, Saturday
9 June. Assemble 1.30pm at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, central London, for a march to Trafalgar Square